magine, for a moment, that you're an 18th century German or French baron deciding what you're going to do with your evening. You might do worse, perhaps, than to invite a couple of dozen friends to your well-appointed sitting room, and bring in one of the great musicians of the day to talk to you about his favourite music and play it to you.
Going to hear James Lisney playing Schubert at London's latest classical music venue, The Forge in Camden, may not have been precisely that experience. But it was a whole lot closer than you might expect. The Forge seats about 100 at a squeeze, plus a few more in the gallery upstairs - a reasonable size for our baronial palace's sitting room. OK, so the plastic seats aren't exactly baronial, but the piano is a perfectly good Steinway and the acoustics are top notch - lots of hard surfaces give the room a lot of life (far more than all those soft furnishings in our imaginary palace).
Lisney obviously knows his Schubert backwards, forwards and sideways: he talked to us very informatively about each of the pieces in the programme (the D915 Allegretto, the D899 and D935 sets of Impromptus and the D780 Moments Musicaux) before playing them, which really helped me to listen. These works, it seems to me, are all about texture: there was hardly a dissonant chord in the whole evening and the chord progressions aren't particularly challenging. Rather, the strong emotional effect is communicated by intricate tracery of scales and arpeggios, with the parts from the two hands working in counterpoint and with great subtlety in the changes of pace, dynamics and the interplay between parts. Lisney's playing was wonderful, translating all this delicate technical complexity into shifts of mood and musical storytelling. My favourite was the first of the D899 set, with its depiction of a bleak journey across winter landscape. All the pieces in the programme, Lisney explained, were written in 1827, the year that Schubert wrote the song cycle "Winterreise", and D899 no.1 is based on his earlier "Erlkonig" setting of the Elven King stealing a child from its father riding through a wintry countryside).
It's a rare thing to be able to see a pianist of Lisney's class in a room of that size, and rarer still when the room is so good acoustically. I really enjoy listening to concerts in such an intimate atmosphere, and I hope Londoners will flock to The Forge. And I will certainly be listening to Lisney again.
26th November 2009